The Kingdom of Bahrain is often portrayed as one of the most developed economies in the Arabian Gulf. It was one of the first countries where oil was discovered, and it was one of the first countries to attempt building a post-oil diversified economy based on industry and banking with a highly-qualified workforce. Bahrain scores high in economic indicators such as the Human Development Index or GDP per capita. Nevertheless, Bahrain relies highly on Saudi Arabia, its main commercial partner, and requires foreign investment to remain competitive.
Because of this reason, Bahrain, like most of the CGC countries, spends huge amounts of money in Public Relations campaigns by hosting international conferences and sports events such as the Grand Prix of Bahrain, or building a strong Olympic team through naturalizations. The royal family of Bahrain, at the same time, has friendly relations with its European counterparts, a valuable image booster. Even though the monarchy holds tightly the Government and controls half of the parliament, Bahrein is commonly depicted as a Constitutional Monarchy, which makes them seem more tolerant and progressive than its bigger neighbor, Saudi Arabia.
However, there is an uncomfortable alternative narrative about this small group of islands. A narrative focused on state repression, censorship and political restrictions. In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, the streets of Manama were crowded with demonstrators asking for better economic conditions and political freedom, although the demands escalated and there were even calls asking for the dismissal of the royal family. The governmental crackdown was brutal, and for the first time the Peninsula Shield Force (a joint defense project of the CGC countries) was deployed as an anti-riot force, with troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
From that moment on, the government of Bahrain has increased the repression and hundreds of activists, dissenters and civil society figures have been imprisoned. There have been periodical calls to action and waves of protests, which have resulted in further escalation of the repression. The last developments have been the dissolution of al-Wefaq, the main opposition group, and the imprisonment of its leader, the Shia cleric Ali Salman, who has also been stripped out of his nationality; as well as the detention of two activists that criticized Bahrain’s support to Saudi actions in Yemen.
The situation, however, is not essentially new. A report of 1985 stated that since 1975, Bahrainis have lived under a virtual state of emergency which has pushed all forms of political opposition underground. In the 1980s, as nowadays, the most important opposition group was predominantly Shiite. Their concerns were not religious but economic and political. In the 1990s there were also waves of protests which were effectively suppressed by the government.
Most western media depict the inner conflicts of Bahrain as a reflection of the Shi-Sunni divide that is allegedly affecting the Arab world. Thus, according to this vision, the 2011 wave of protests was originated by the alienation of the Shiites, who are the majority of the population but are excluded from the government and security forces, controlled by Sunnites. According to some commentators, this portrayal of a Sunni-Shia rift only benefits the royal family. Moreover, it is not fully accurate.
It is true that the government is led by Sunnis, and to some extent they have succeeded to portrait the opposition as Shiite conspirers, a threat to the stability and prosperity of the reign. Most Shiites, indeed, resent the government, regardless of their socio-economical level. Nevertheless, not all the Sunnis are staunch defenders of the royal family. Many of them participated in the protests, especially those belonging to the poorest strata of the population. The stability of the regime, therefore, depends on their success on keeping the Sunnis loyal by fueling mutual suspicion and sectarian hatred: divide et impera.
Bahrain is a crucial geopolitical ally for the West, as it hosts the US Fifth Fleet. Prior to that, it had been of the most important partners of the British Empire in the Persian Gulf, a relationship that this year is being commemorated. Since its formal independence in 1971, Bahrain has been ruled by the Al Khalifa family, that had been in control of the country since the late eighteenth century. The country keeps strong relations with the other monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, which have cooperated providing financial and military aid in the last years. Turning a blind eye on Bahrain’s growing repression is a good short-term strategy for the European countries, but it could severely damage their relation with the Arab archipelago should the regime fall.